Our country today is politically polarized. The gap is widening between the haves and have-nots, with the middle disappearing. Is this the worst time in American history? How can anyone say? This is where we are now. A hundred and fifty years ago, none of us living now were yet alive.
A younger friend asked me once, “What were the Sixties really like?” Well, the answer depends on the person you ask. High school students and college students had very different experiences, military families quite different again, and the rich and powerful, as always – well, they live on a different plane from the rest of us, don't they?
How old are you? Where did you grow up? Are you black or white, yellow, brown or red?
In the United States at large, we enjoyed great music in the Sixties -- and mourned terrible assassinations. The decade brought Black Power and the Black Panthers, a story told in the novel Virgin Soul, by Judy Juanita, but urban and rural dwellers knew the Sixties in very different ways, as Anne-Marie Oomen reveals in her memoir, Love, Sex, and 4-H.
Across the United States and elsewhere in the world, there were protests against the war in Vietnam until American troops were finally pulled out. But in southeast Asia itself, life in warn-torn Vietnam brought years of terror that did not end when the Americans left, or as the Sixties bled into the Seventies, because it’s one thing to have your country involved in an overseas war and quite another to have a war in your backyard.
Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (1999), has just given me an unforgettable reading experience. His father, an engineer and “a man of regrets,” also a former Nationalist, was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese Communists following the American withdrawal. (An and his mother, highly enterprising and deeply superstitious, lived near the prison camp to watch over the head of the family, while other children lived with grandparents.) One of six children, An (his Vietnamese name) was the second-born. After his father was mysteriously released from prison, and before he could be recaptured and executed – the fate he expected, had the Communists learned of his background as a Nationalist propaganda director -- the family escaped from Vietnam.
An was eight years old when his family came to America, but growing up in California he remembered his Vietnamese childhood. Those memories were the inspiration for his return visit as a young adult, to explore by bicycle (on a limited amount of money difficult for native Vietnamese who never left home to believe is all he has) the country he left so long ago.
For Americans and for Vietnamese, the Sixties were a world-changing decade. One friend of ours volunteered for the draft with a buddy, right out of high school. His buddy never came home, and our friend still asks himself what his life would have been like “if I hadn’t gone to Vietnam.”
During his often difficult travels, Andrew Pham asks himself again and again, what his life would have been like had his family stayed in Vietnam. He realizes that his good fortune was very much an accident of birth. Different parents, different life. Seeing firsthand terrible poverty and corruption in the country that might still have been his home, he is grateful for his good fortune, despite resentments and prejudice he encountered growing up in the U.S.
The Sixties were a long time ago, an era sanctified in retrospect by some and reviled by others. If you weren’t around then, this obituary for Daniel Berrigan will give you some idea of what you missed during that period in the United States. There was a lot more to it than tie-dye and drugs, beads and funny clothes.
Rest in peace, Daniel Berrigan. You got your work done.